Although the Church has long made its stance on same-sex relationships clear, Catholic schools are now facing a difficult question of their own: Should a child being raised by two parents of the same gender be allowed to receive a Catholic education?
The issue has been at the center of controversy in two major U.S. archdioceses in recent months. In March, Sacred Heart of Jesus School in Boulder, Colo., decided that two children of a lesbian couple — a kindergartner and a preschooler — would be able to finish the current year but would not be allowed to attend the school next year. In a similar case just two months later, St. Paul School in Hingham, Mass., denied enrollment to the 8-year-old son of a lesbian couple.
Both cases grabbed the attention of the media and resulted in strong reactions both for and against the schools’ decisions. In the Colorado case, the school received the full backing of the Archdiocese of Denver, with Archbishop Charles J. Chaput explaining in a statement that the decision had “followed faithfully” the policy of the archdiocese.
“The idea that Catholic schools should require support for Catholic teaching for admission, and a serious effort from school families to live their Catholic identity faithfully, is reasonable and just,” Archbishop Chaput said.
“The Church never looks for reasons to turn anyone away from a Catholic education,” he added. “But the Church can’t change her moral beliefs without undermining her mission and failing to serve the many families who believe in that mission.”
The Archdiocese of Boston, however, had a different response. Although Boston’s archbishop, Cardinal Sean O’Malley, publicly offered his support for the pastor who made the decision, diocesan superintendent of schools Mary Grassa O’Neill issued a statement saying the archdiocese does not prohibit children of same-sex couples from attending its schools.
She further said that the archdiocese would be working to develop a policy to “eliminate any misunderstandings in the future” and that she had offered to assist the parents in finding another Catholic school for their child.
Among those who opposed the Massachusetts school’s decision was Catholics United, a national social justice advocacy group. Chris Korzen, executive director, told Our Sunday Visitor that the decision to exclude a child from attending a Catholic school based on the sexual orientation of their parents is a clear-cut case of discrimination that stands in opposition to the Church’s teaching.
“We believe that all children are worthy of a Catholic education, and what’s most important here is what is right for the child, which is an opportunity to access this education,” Korzen said.
Because Catholic schools frequently accept children from other faith backgrounds or from households with single or divorced parents, Korzen said that there already exists a precedent for offering a Catholic education to a child even when their parents are not living in accordance with the teachings of the Church. He argues that singling out children of same-sex couples is merely an attempt to demonstrate the Church’s disapproval of their parents’ lifestyle at the child’s expense.
“This is not about the parents, it is about the child,” Korzen said. “What kind of message would it send to a child to discriminate against them in this way? It says that because of something their parents have done they are not worthy, and that’s not what we believe as Catholics.”
Others argue, however, that the decision to exclude the children of same-sex couples from Catholics schools is not only in the best interests of the child, but of the entire school community.
Father Roger Landry, a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Mass., who has served in several parishes that operate parochial schools, told OSV that while he doesn’t favor an absolute policy that would never allow a child of same-sex parents to attend a Catholic school, in most cases it could lead to a “moral and spiritual schizophrenia” for a child to learn that their parents are living in discord with the Church’s teaching.
“If a child is going to be getting contradictory messages on something that is very important, generally a young child is not going to have the capacity to reconcile both of those,” Father Landry said. “Even though we earnestly desire to bring the child to Christ, we don’t want to confuse the child in the formative years so much that the future of the child may be hurt by that.”
Much like when a parent who is not practicing the faith presents their child for baptism, Father Landry explained, a priest must sometimes make the difficult decision to turn away a child because they are not likely to be raised in a manner that follows Church teaching. In the case of Catholic education, he said, the school must be confident that the parents will not be openly opposing what they teach.
“Catholic schools do not just accept children, they basically accept families,” Father Landry said. “And there needs to be a cooperation between what the students are receiving in school and what they are receiving at home.”
Allowing the child of a same-sex couple into a Catholic school is also a potential source of confusion for other students in the school, Father Landry added, and may place teachers in the uncomfortable position of having to present the Catholic teaching on marriage to a child who may find those teachings to be upsetting.
The recent cases in Colorado and Massachusetts are not the first instances in which Catholic schools have faced questions regarding the practices of a child’s parents. Some schools, including St. John the Baptist in Costa Mesa, Calif., have established clear admissions policies.
Norbertine Father Norbert Wood, St. John’s rector, said a school would greatly limit its ability to evangelize by restricting enrollment to only faithful Catholic families. But the school also recognizes that some situations could become counterproductive to their mission, requiring that each situation be evaluated individually, he said.
When it comes to same-sex parents, he said, their lifestyle alone is not an obstacle to the enrollment of their children. But the school has drawn a clear line for acceptable public behavior and how parents present themselves within the school and parish community.
“When people are willing to be low profile and fly under the radar, we can still serve those children and give them a good Catholic education,” Father Wood told OSV. “But the minute somebody starts to put a spotlight on their adult lifestyle behaviors that could send a mixed message, or a counter-ecclesial message, to the kids or to anybody else involved in our school community, that is where we’ve got to immediately step in.”
Scott Alessi writes from New Jersey.
Facing Complex Questions (sidebar)
“In all of our decision making, our first concern is the welfare of the children involved. With that in mind, the essence of what we are looking at is the question of how do we make Catholic schools available to children who come from diverse, often unconventional households, while ensuring the moral theology and teachings of the Church are not compromised? It is true that we welcome people from all walks of life. But we recognize that, regardless of the circumstances involved, we maintain our responsibility to teach the truths of our faith, including those concerning sexual morality and marriage. We need to present the Church’s teachings courageously and yet in a way that is compassionate and persuasive.”
— Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, in a May 19 blog post